The Militant (logo) 
   Vol.64/No.32            August 21, 2000 
Black farmers: 'We want our land back'
WASHINGTON--One hundred farmers and their supporters rallied at the federal courthouse steps here, then packed the courtroom July 31 for a "fairness" hearing held on a motion to reconsider the April 1999 settlement of Pigford v. Glickman, a class-action lawsuit that charged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with widespread discrimination against farmers who are Black.

"Lawsuit Becomes Death Trap for Black Farmers" and "Justice Department and Agriculture Department: Coconspirators in Black Farmers Lawsuit" were among the handmade signs carried.

Griffin Todd Sr., a farmer from Zebulon, North Carolina, who like many of the Black farmers has been at a number of Washington protests, declared, "We have to fight for what we won." He was referring to the fact that nearly 40 percent of some 20,000 farmers who applied for the promised $50,000 settlement have been denied funds and only 111 have had their debts written off, as stipulated in the settlement known as a consent decree.

"We will not stop until justice has been done for the Black farmer," stated Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA), which organized the action. Grant estimated that farmers from 18 states were present that day, including from Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah.

At the hearing, attended by close to 200 people, attorney Stephon Bowens of the Land Loss Prevention Project argued that the consent decree should be set aside or at least modified. He reviewed the arbitrary way decisions on claims have been made.

Many farmers are losing their farms and livelihoods as they wait for the process to run its course. Even for farmers approved under the consent decree, $50,000 hardly begins to make up for the land, equipment, and homes that were taken away.

The consent decree stipulates that farmers who are Black must prove government discrimination by identifying "similarly situated white farmers" who were not denied USDA loans. Alexander Pires, attorney for the class-action suit, admitted to the court, "This has proven harder than I thought, especially obtaining these records in states like North Carolina." Pires also asked the court for an interim award of $28 million in attorneys' fees and court costs.

U.S. district judge Paul Friedman echoed the government's excuse for the delays, saying that 10 times as many claims were received than expected. He did reject the government's request to throw out the motion to reconsider the fairness of the consent decree. Friedman is supposed to rule within 30-45 days on the motions.

"It was powerful to see everyone here from all over the U.S.," remarked Pennsylvania farmer Kelvin Poole at a meeting of 100 farmers after the hearing. Poole said he had just filed for bankruptcy. "We're not going to give up," he declared. "This is bigger than just losing my tractors. I believe we will be victorious."

Leroy James Jr, a Georgia peanut and cotton farmer, said, "I don't think the judge was taking this seriously." In an interview he said his claim was denied, then won on appeal, but after a year and a half he has yet to receive his $50,000--only two "late payment letters," each one saying he should receive something within 60 days, and then 60 days more. His brother received a settlement but is still fighting for his loan to be written off.

The demonstrators gave a standing ovation to 86-year-old Rosa Murphy, a Georgia farmer who "came this far for the fight." Her claim was turned down because the authorities said she didn't have the farm, which she has had since 1938.

Many farmers have held protests in their states. A march of some 50 farmers took place in Little Rock, Arkansas, in early July. Vegetable farmer Abraham Carpenter told the media, "We will continue marching and letting people know that just because the government says they will give money, it's not that easy. We have a fight on our hands and we will continue to fight for our money and our rights."  
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